So, I'm stuck in traffic and having this freestyle battle with my 2-year-old daughter (she held her own, but her limited vocab was working in my favor) when it suddenly occurred to me that she, like other children her age, would never know a time when Rap did not exist. Hip-Hop music, culture, marketing and attitude will define nearly every social interaction that she will have as she blossoms into young adulthood.
That's a scary thing.
Understand, I am a Hip Hop fiend. However, while I prefer the more cerebral brand of music offered by such artists as The Roots, Common, Dead Prez, Cincinnati's IsWhat?! and The Watusi Tribe, I also recognize that this type of music sadly represents only a small percentage of what is sold or played on America's airwaves. So, while our daughter presently nods her head to the innocent, eclectic mix of styles found on the Wild Thornberrys soundtrack, I reluctantly concede that as a teen she may be bouncing to her generation's equivalent of Chingy or Lil' Kim.
This thought is even scarier.
This raises the question of the impact of parental responsibility versus media influence. In "Sex, Lies and Videos" (Essence, 2002), writer Joan Morgan supports the notion that it is up to parents to set standards for what their children should and should not be exposed to in the media, adding that "instead of ... being at the mercy of the media, we must recognize our power to have an impact on it." Hence, the battle begins. We're strapped and ready to wage war with the powerful companies that determine what we see and hear on a daily basis.
The issue of media influence is further complicated by the manner in which many women are portrayed (or allow themselves to be portrayed) in Hip Hop music. Women are either typecast as one-dimensional video groupies or abrasive "divas" as they compete for a spot in what has traditionally been a male dominated industry. In either case, the message is clear: This is the blueprint for financial/emotional/personal success in a world defined by Hip-Hop culture.
I would prefer to simplify the issue and blame all of this on the "lowest common denominator" economy supported by Hip Hop music. However, in a powerful essay entitled "Misogyny, Gangsta Rap, and The Piano," feminist writer bell hooks suggests that the images of women portrayed in Rap videos are a "part of a sexist continuum necessary for the maintenance of patriarchal social order." In other words, boyz are being boyz at the expense of the dignity and self-esteem of our young women.
The theory proposed by hooks makes perfect sense. How many times have we witnessed the familiar scene of the Hip-Hop video's male star rocking a $600 throwback jersey, platinum chains and doo rag while Rap Groupies 1 through 5 wait patiently at his side, ready and willing to satisfy his every desire? The scenario sounds more like a Hip Hop version of a Penthouse letter than a realistic portrayal of how young women should expect to be treated by the men in their lives. But we're constantly reminded that this is only entertainment.
Recognizing the immense pressure to conform in the entertainment industry, I cannot place all of the blame on the up-and-coming actress/model who chooses to accept these types of Rap video roles. The fact that women are fiercely underrepresented as writers and lyricists in the world of Rap music might contribute to the limited roles available to them. For every Mystic (Cuts for Luck and Scars for Freedom), there are 10 Lil' Kims using hypersexuality and materialism to pave their way to commercial success.
I suspect that at some point public interest in these types of manufactured images will begin to wane as the demand for more intelligent and diverse music becomes greater. But then again, perhaps not. Rappers like Missy Elliott and Trina keep selling "it," and we keep buying it. In the meantime, Hip Hop's largest constituency continues to be sold a skewed image of modern femininity which will shape the paths that young women all over the world will follow.
As parents, we understand that we can never completely shield our daughter, or any child, from the negativity that consumes mainstream media. I also realize that every generation, in an effort to establish independence from the generation preceding it, embraces some form of music that will be met with their parents' disapproval. But, "I put my thang down, flip it and reverse it"? Never. Our daughter -- as well as every other child born in the age of the Hip Hop matrix -- deserves much, much better.
KEVIN BRITTON writes about Hip Hop music and its impact on popular culture. His column appears monthly in CityBeat.